Desperately Seeking Susan ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Rosanna Arquette, Madonna, Aidan Quinn, Mark Blum, Robert Joy, Will Patton, and Laurie Metcalf
Written by: Leora Barish
Directed by: Susan Seidelman
Simply stating “I saw that many times when I was younger” is not sufficient enough info to explain a film’s quality. On the eve of the 30th anniversary for Desperately Seeking Susan, I revisited the film, curious to see if what fired up on my TV screen coincided with what my nostalgic mind had etched in. The result was interesting, for I remembered everything; as an adult, however, I saw it all differently. Plot-wise, it is a standard film about mistaken identity and breaking out of your shell, and just by watching, you can nearly smell the Aqua Net. History now tells a slightly different story. Looking back we can see that the film is, quite possibly, a landmark- not just for culture and fashion, but also from an oddly feminist perspective in a time where capitalism and machismo ran amok. With memorable characters, great music, and a carefree sensibility, it’s an 80’s film that actually works.
Rosanna Arquette stars as Roberta Glass, the embodiment of the wealthy stay-at-home 80’s wife. She’s bored, naturally, as her husband Gary (Blum) runs a hot tub business while fooling around. Roberta resorts to sifting through the personals to generate some excitement in her life. One such personal, an ongoing, coded conversation between a ‘Jim’ (Robert Joy) and a ‘Susan’ (Madonna) catches her eye, and she decides to ‘participate’. First, she not-so-subtly tails Susan to a meeting with Jim, then to a thrift store, where she manages to buy what Susan has just traded in, a sequined jacket. This just happens to be the same sequined jacket that caught the eye of a mob killer (Will Patton), who now tracks her. In a twist, she’s knocked unconscious after an altercation with said killer, and Dez (Aidan Quinn) comes to her rescue. Of course, Dez is the aforementioned Jim’s friend, and he’s just helping him out by checking up on her. Dez now thinks that Roberta is Susan, and since her identification disappears, well, she basically becomes Susan.
I completely understand that this film offers no breakthroughs in plot framing, but it does work, even if it asks the audience to pay attention. The issue with amnesia/mistaken identity films always becomes when and where the lead is ‘found out’, or begins to remember. The writer always knows to place that moment wherever it is needed, not when it necessarily would happen. In this case, the coincidences are plenty, but thematically it works. Roberta, for all intents and purposes, wanted to be like Susan anyway- fate just sort of pushed her in that direction. She becomes attracted to Dez, gets a job working with a magician, and begins to dress how her mind apparently wants her to dress. I appreciate this film’s rebellious spirit and renegade fashion sense, not conforming to the entrepreneurial 80s. You can almost feel society moving with the film, as Roberta drops her shoulder pads for a monogrammed leather coat.
In that sense, one could classify Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan as a “feminist” film; one that recognizes the jolt that Aidan Quinn’s character gives to Roberta, but establishes that it’s Roberta herself that makes the choice to leave her husband, and to succeed on her own, establishing her own identity. The rogue, expressive freedom that Madonna exudes through her character and her wardrobe is sexy, yes, but not exploitative. Susan is a character that controls her sexuality, and maintains her independence. Make no mistake- Madonna started something in the mid 1980s, and this film is a fair portrait of her influence. I remember in particular a fellow student raising a ruckus back in second grade when she dressed like Madonna. Certainly, while it was inappropriate wear for a second grader, it’s clear that Madonna’s personality and style permeated our culture like few stars before- or after. While not a narrative masterpiece, Desperately Seeking Susan is still fun, and quite deserving of its’ position as a declarative 1980s film.